Legislation can guarantee the neutrality our internet economy deserves

Legislation can guarantee the neutrality our internet economy deserves
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Having recently closed its public commenting period, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has begun the arduous task of reviewing the millions of replies from around the country in response to its proposal to repeal the Open Internet Order — a regulation spearheaded by former Chairman Tom Wheeler and passed by the FCC in 2015.

If the FCC wants to enhance opportunity for businesses of all sizes, and propel economic growth in general (especially for those areas impacted by recent natural disasters), it should repeal the regulation, enticing Congress to enact permanent legislation and protections.

While some pundits — and even a few comedians — have railed against the repeal of this order, the FCC’s new, and recently re-confirmed, Chairman Ajit Pai has a clear message that I agree with: regulating today’s immensely complex internet under rules established during the 1930s (i.e. the Open Internet Order) will do more harm than good in today’s 21st century digital economy.

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A little-known section of the Communications Act of 1934 is the sore point of this debate. Under current FCC rules, broadband services are governed under Title II of the act — rules that were established to regulate our great-grandmas’ rotary phone usage during the Great Depression. But, broadband services are a far more advanced medium for informing, educating, and connecting people and businesses than the old switchboard operation centers we relied on then.

 

While some hyper-politicos want to frame the discussion as either for or against “net neutrality,” the reality is nearly all companies making up the country’s internet ecosystem already support net neutrality’s basic precepts that internet service providers (ISPs) should not block content, slow access to any website or service, or create "fast lanes" resulting in unfair advantages that can hurt small businesses and consumers.

Concerns arise, however, over how we best protect the internet, without unnecessarily restricting opportunities for both small and large businesses.

The FCC has been tasked with safeguarding the internet and protecting consumers; it is not their job to legislate policy. My organization’s interests — especially those of small businesses and entrepreneurs in Puerto Rico who now need to be afforded every advantage and opportunity to grow more than ever before — and our members’ mutual experience have made it clear that the best thing for America’s fragile economy will be for the FCC to continue its plan to repeal the unnecessary regulations. Congress will then be impelled to enact legislation that ensures the long-term certainty that we all need and deserve, as well as the incentive for businesses to invest in Puerto Rico (and others impacted by natural disasters) instead of relying solely on relief packages.

Over the last decade, we have seen a remarkable shift in opportunities for entrepreneurs and small business owners, as well as significant growth opportunities for larger, more established corporations. The internet is driving economic opportunity across the globe and search engines and other applications that deliver online services are expanding the scope and efficiency of consumer choice. Most noteworthy is the fact that these technological milestones have been realized under a non-Title II regulated environment. 

The new rules implemented by the commission in 2015 create a challenging business environment, particularly given the uncertainty of whether existing rules and regulations will subsequently be overturned by the next set of FCC commissioners. Pulling back the FCC's Title II approach will help pave the way for a legislative solution that makes sense for small business.

Not too long ago were the days in which the only way to improve a business’ market share was to build a physical footprint via a brick and mortar, Main Street storefront. In such a world, entrepreneurs with great ideas, but less access to capital, were restricted in their opportunities to grow.

Today, anyone with an idea and an internet connection can compete in markets around the world. These new opportunities have leveled the playing field for millions of Americans from all walks of life, and have done so without imposing the regulations that we have in place today, which create confusion and uncertainty more than anything else.

Consumers and businesses agree that some regulatory standards are warranted and in many cases necessary to protect our national economic interests. While the current FCC chairman is set on establishing a policy framework that protects both consumers and the future of the internet, the burden ultimately rests with Congress.

There is no more important time for Congress to develop legislation that will protect our digital economy, the interests of consumers and businesses alike, and offer clear and defined regulatory objectives to the FCC. The legislative approach is the only way to solidify policies that withstand the shifting political winds in Washington, D.C., protecting equitable internet access and economic opportunities for communities across the country, especially those in greatest need today.

Justin Velez-Hagan (@JVelezHagan) is an economic policy analyst and author of The Common Sense behind Basic Economics (Lexington Books, 2015), as well as the upcoming The Paradox of Fiscal Austerity (2018). He is also the founder and executive director of the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce.